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How ancient forest fragmentation and riparian connectivity generate high levels of genetic diversity in a micro-endemic Malagasy tree
An ancient age of open-canopy landscapes in northern Madagascar? Evidence from the population genetic structure of a forest treeRecommended by Miguel de Navascués based on reviews by Katharina Budde and Yurena Arjona
We currently live in the Anthropocene, the geological age characterized by a profound impact of human populations in the ecosystems and the environment. While there is little doubt about the action of humans in the shaping of present landscapes, it can be difficult to determine what the state of those landscapes was before humans started to modify them. This is the case of the Madagascar grasslands, whose origins have been debated with arguments proposing them either as anthropogenic, created with the arrival of humans around 2000BP, or as ancient features of the natural landscape with a forest fragmentation process due to environmental changes pre-dating human arrival [e.g. 1,2]. One way to clarify this question is through the genetic study of native species. Population continuity and fragmentation along time shape the structure of the genetic diversity in space. Species living in a uniform continuous habitat are expected to show genetic structuring determined only by geographical distance. Recent changes of the habitat can take many generations to reshape that genetic structure . Thus, we expect genetic structure to reflect ancient features of the landscape.
The work by Jordi Salmona and collaborators  studies the factors determining the population genetic structure of the Malagasy spiny olive (Noronhia spinifolia). This narrow endemic species is distributed in the discontinuous forest patches of the Loky-Manambato region (northern Madagascar). Jordi Salmona and collaborators genotyped 72 individuals distributed across the species distribution with restriction associated DNA sequencing and organelle microsatellite markers. Then, they studied the population genetic structure of the species. Using isolation-by-resistance models , they tested the influence of several landscape features (forest cover, roads, rivers, slope, etc.) on the connectivity between populations. Maternally inherited loci (chloroplast and mitochondria) and bi-parentally inherited loci (nuclear), were analysed separately in an attempt to identify the role of pollen and seed dispersal in the connectivity of populations.
Despite the small distribution of the species, Jordi Salmona and collaborators  found remarkable levels of genetic diversity. The spatial structure of this diversity was found to be mainly explained by the forest cover of the landscape, suggesting that the landscape has been composed by patches of forests and grasslands for a long time. The main role of forest cover for the connectivity among populations also highlights the importance of riparian forest as dispersal corridors. Finally, differences between organelle and nuclear markers were not enough to establish any strong conclusion about the differences between pollen and seed dispersal.
The results presented by Jordi Salmona and collaborators  contribute to the understanding of the history and ecology of understudied Madagascar ecosystems. Previous population genetic studies in some forest-dwelling mammals have been interpreted as supporting an old age for the fragmented landscapes in northern Madagascar [e.g. 1,6]. To my knowledge, this is the first study on a tree species. While this work might not completely settle the debate, it emphasizes the importance of studying a diversity of species to understand the biogeographic dynamics of a region.
1. Quéméré, E., X. Amelot, J. Pierson, B. Crouau-Roy, L. Chikhi (2012) Genetic data suggest a natural prehuman origin of open habitats in northern Madagascar and question the deforestation narrative in this region. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of
America 109: 13028–13033. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1200153109
2. Joseph, G.S., C.L. Seymour (2020) Madagascan highlands: originally woodland and forest containing endemic grasses, not grazing-adapted grassland. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 287: 20201956. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.1956
3. Landguth, E.L., S.A. Cushman, M.K. Schwartz, K.S. McKelvey, M. Murphy, G. Luikart (2010) Quantifying the lag time to detect barriers in landscape genetics. Molecular Ecology 19: 4179–
4. Salmona J., Dresen A, Ranaivoson AE, Manzi S, Pors BL, Hong-Wa C, Razanatsoa J, Andriaholinirina NV, Rasoloharijaona S, Vavitsara M-E, Besnard G (2021) How ancient forest fragmentation and riparian connectivity generate high levels of genetic diversity in a micro-endemic Malagasy tree. bioRxiv, 2020.11.25.394544, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.11.25.394544
5. McRae, B.H. (2006) Isolation by resistance. Evolution 60: 1551–1561. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0014-3820.2006.tb00500.x
6. Rakotoarisoa J.-E., M. Raheriarisena, S.M. Goodman (2013) Late Quaternary climatic vegetational shifts in an ecological transition zone of northern Madagascar: insights from genetic analyses of two endemic rodent species. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 26: 1019–1034. https://doi.org/10.1111/jeb.12116